New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

TOWLES v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2000-013-515, Claim No. 95807


Muslim inmates sued to recover damages for (1) being fed meat that was not Halal during Ramadan; (2) receiving late notice of the start of Ramadan; and (3) being deprived chaplain visits. Judge Patti held that: (1) the proof did not show that the meat was not Halal; (2) the inmates received late notice of Ramadan, but were not damaged because they fasted for an additional day; and (3) they should have pursued their chaplain visit claims by commencing an Article 78 proceeding. The claims were dismissed.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: CAROL A. COCCHIOLA, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
November 30, 2000

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)
2000-013-516, 2000-013-517


Claimants René Towles, Baron Rowlett and Gary Worthy are inmates and followers of Islam. They allege that Defendant violated their religious rights during Ramadan by negligently feeding them food that was not Halal (religiously acceptable) and by beginning the observance one day late. Claimants also allege that Defendant violated their rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Correction Law §610 by depriving them of weekly chaplain visits with a Muslim Imam (spiritual leader).

Their claims, which are identical, arose in early 1997 when they resided in A-Block at Southport Correctional Facility (Southport). At their request, which Defendant did not oppose, I tried the claims together on August 11, 2000 at the Elmira Correctional Facility.[1]
To facilitate the orderly trial of these pro se matters, Claimants chose Claimant Towles to act as their spokesperson and agreed to be bound by his testimony.

1. Religiously Acceptable Food

Mr. Towles has been a Muslim for approximately nine years. He explained that Ramadan is a 30-day period of heightened religious observance. Devout Muslims are supposed to fast from dawn until sunset and observe certain dietary restrictions. Meat must be "Halal" or lawful, which means that it must be raised, slaughtered and prepared for human consumption in accordance with Muslim requirements.

Towles testified that he was familiar with the menu selection practices followed by Defendant. At one time, the Muslim inmates in a facility could choose their own menu for Ramadan. That practice ended in about 1995 when the Department of Correctional Services adopted a statewide menu system. Under the new system, Muslim inmates received the same selection of foods as other inmates. The only difference was that the meat Defendant purchased for Muslim inmates was supposed to come from a Halal vendor and the meal was supposed to be prepared by Muslims in the Muslim way.

According to Towles, Muslims can distinguish Halal meat from regular meat by looking at it and tasting it. Halal chicken, for example, "had more meat" than the chicken usually served by the Department of Correctional Services and "looked more like real chicken."

During the 1997 Ramadan, Towles and the other Claimants felt that the meals they were receiving did not look or taste like the food they had eaten during other Ramadans. There was also a "striking similarity" between the meals given to Muslims and the food Defendant served to the non-Muslim population.

Claimants became concerned that their dietary requirements were not being met. They started to ask Defendant's employees whether the meat had been prepared by Muslims and whether it had been procured from a Muslim vendor. Towles and Worthy also filed grievances on January 15, 1997. Facility officials and the grievance committee assured them that the food met Muslim standards, but Claimants were not convinced. They investigated the issue further and satisfied themselves that the meals had been properly prepared by Muslims and in the Muslim way. However, they remain convinced that the meat they consumed came from non-Halal vendors.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Defendant produced disbursement requests and invoices relating to meat purchased and used during the 1997 Ramadan. The receipts and invoices (Exhibit 4) showed: (1) that the Imam's clerk issued, and Chaplain Fields approved, a disbursement request on January 15, 1997 to pay Halal Meats and Markets of Binghamton for 70 3-pound chickens with money from inmate account(s); (2) that SYSCO Food Services sold Defendant 11 40-pound containers of "Packer Chicken Leg Quarters" and other foods, which it was to deliver to Southport on January 6, 1997; and (3) that the DOCS Food Production Center committed to deliver an undisclosed quantity of "Halal" chicken quarters to Southport on February 12, 1997. Claimants point out that there is nothing in the documentation which indicates that the "Packer" chicken was Halal. Mr. Towles, who said that he regularly reads Muslim publications that deal with dietary issues, asserted that he had never heard of Packer. Claimants also pointed out that one of the orders is dated February 12, 1997, four days after Ramadan ended.

Mr. Jimmie Irizarry has been Food Service Administrator at Southport since 1988 and is responsible for supervising food preparation for all inmates, including Muslims. He explained that Ramadan meals are supposed to look like the meals served to the rest of the population. Beginning in 1997, the Department of Nutritional Services required the Ramadan menu to be the same as the general statewide menu. The only difference between the meals provided to Muslims and those served to non-Muslims was that the meat was Halal and was prepared in accordance with Muslim requirements. Halal meat is visually indistinguishable from ordinary meat.

Mr. Irizarry explained the significance of the food service documentation from the 1997 Ramadan (Exhibit 4). Muslim inmates, he said, funded the purchase of the chickens ordered by the Imam's clerk from Halal Meats and Markets (Exhibit 4, p. 1). The Packer meat delivered on January 6 came to Southport through the statewide procurement system (Exhibit 4, pp. 2-3). The Halal chicken quarters delivered on February 12, 1997 (Exhibit 4, p. 4) came from the State freezer and was intended for the February 15 feast that marked the end of Ramadan. All of this meat, including the "Packer" meat, came in containers and packages that bore the word "Halal."[2]

On cross-examination, Mr. Irizarry said that he did not know what Halal seal(s) looked like, that he did not know whether the meat packages had to be stamped with a Halal, and that he did not know what language appeared on the seal. He explained that he relied upon the Imam's clerk, Mr. Kowalczyk, who is a practicing Muslim and an inmate, to make sure that the meat Defendant fed to Muslims was Halal and was prepared in accordance with Muslim requirements.

Having considered the issue carefully, I find for Defendant on the dietary issues. Mr. Irizarry impressed me as a credible witness who is dedicated to meeting the dietary requirements of Muslim inmates. I am persuaded by his testimony that the meat that Defendant fed to inmates during the 1997 Ramadan was Halal. I do not doubt the sincerity of Claimants' concern about the source of the meat that they were eating, but I was not convinced the meals served to Claimants were not Halal.

2. Delayed Commencement of Ramadan

The second part of the claims had to do with the accuracy
of the information Defendant provided about the start of Ramadan.
One cannot determine when Ramadan will begin by looking at a calendar. It starts with the sighting of the new moon and lasts for the 30 days that follow. Mr. Towles and the other Claimants were not able to watch for the new moon while they were in the Special Housing Unit. The facility had to tell them when the moon became visible.

Mr. Towles testified that Claimants began fasting after they learned of the start of Ramadan late in the day on January 10. They did not, however, receive a Ramadan meal that night (
see, Towles' Claim, ¶6). On the day that the observance ended, he realized that it had lasted only 29 days, or one day shorter than it was supposed to have been. He maintained at trial that Ramadan was supposed to have begun at sundown on January 9. His testimony is corroborated by the 1996-1997 Nutritional Services Ramadan Procedures Memorandum (Exhibit A ), which indicates that the tentative starting date for Ramadan was sundown on January 9, 1997. However, another DOCS planning memorandum dated October 21, 1996 indicates that January 10 was the tentative beginning of the observance.
Mr. Irizarry testified that he distributed the memorandum which announced the beginning of Ramadan on the evening of January 10, 1997 and said that the last day of the observance was February 8 (
see, Exhibit A).
Claimants have demonstrated that the Ramadan fast was shorter than it was supposed to be. There were 29 full days of observance (January 11 - February 8) and one day of partial observance (January 10). It is unfortunate that this occurred. However, Mr. Towles' testimony, to which the other Claimants agreed to be bound, demonstrates that Claimants suffered no damage or harm because of this mistake. They were able to fulfill the requirements of their faith by continuing the fast for an additional day and by avoiding food that required special preparation requirements. For this reason, I conclude that Claimants were not damaged by Defendant's error and that Defendant cannot be held liable.

This brings me to Claimants' third and last theory:

3. Chaplain Visits

During Ramadan it is important, according to Mr. Towles, for inmates to be able to consult with a chaplain who can answer questions about spiritual observance. The visits are supposed to take place at least once a week, and the chaplain should be a Muslim.

Sometime before the 1997 Ramadan, Southport revoked the privileges of Imam Mussallihullah, the Muslim chaplain. The remaining chaplains were not Muslims and, according to Towles, did not meet with the inmates on a weekly basis. In fact, he and the other Claimants allegedly had only two visits between January 1 and March 10. One was exceedingly brief. Towles described it as a "drive-by" visit. Chaplain Fields did not stop to talk. He simply asked "how are you doing?" as he walked past each inmate's cell.

Special Housing Unit Directive No. 4933, which was in effect at the time, provided that "[c]ounseling by a member of the facility's Ministerial Services staff will be provided upon the written request of an inmate", and that "[t]he facility Senior Chaplain or a designated member of the Ministerial Services staff will be required to make a minimum of one round per week in the SHU" (
see, Exhibit B).
Towles testified that Claimants submitted written requests for chaplain visits, but Claimants did not have copies of their requests with them at trial. In the January 15 grievances, however, Claimants Towles and Worthy complained that they had not had a visit from a Muslim chaplain "for months." Towles asked for the Head Chaplain to contact the Imam of the nearest Masjid and request his personal assistance. He also asked that the Head Chaplain make rounds on all galleries to consult with prisoners, particularly Muslims. Worthy asked for an Islamic chaplain or the Head Chaplain to "counsel me once a week as per directive #4933" (
see, Court's Exhibit 1).
Defendant responded to the two grievances but apparently did not address the requests for chaplain visits. There is no evidence that Claimants Towles or Worthy requested further consideration of this part of their grievance or that they appealed the Grievance Committee's decision[3]
(see, 7 NYCRR 701.7[b] and 701.7[c]).
Theresa Stanley testified that she became a Catholic chaplain at Southport in November 1995 or 1996. For the first month and a half, she was the only chaplain. Imam Mussallihullah was "positioned at Southport, but he was not working there." However, she was able to call an Imam who worked at the Elmira Correctional Facility if she had questions. In the absence of a resident Imam at Southport, the Imam's clerk saw to the preparations for Ramadan. When Reverend Fields joined the staff in December or January, he assumed responsibility for Ramadan.

Defendant does not, according to Chaplain Stanley, station a chaplain representing every recognized faith at each of its facilities. If a facility does not have a representative from a particular faith, then the Coordinating Chaplain at the facility can get advice from colleagues at other facilities who belong to that faith. During the 1997 Ramadan, Reverend Fields was the Coordinating Chaplain at Southport.

Chaplain Stanley testified that it is impossible for each chaplain to visit the 780 Special Housing Unit inmates once a week. The chaplains who currently work at Southport each take one of the four blocks to visit each week. If the chaplain assigned to a particular block is not of the inmate's faith and the inmate wants to speak to the Chaplain from his faith, then the inmate can submit a written request. Defendant has no record, according to Chaplain Stanley, that any of the Claimants made a written request for a chaplain visit during the 1997 Ramadan. However, inmates also make verbal requests.

Before trial, Chaplain Stanley reviewed the log book for A-Block where Claimants resided. According to Chaplain Stanley, it showed that she entered the block 28 times and that Reverend Fields entered it 27 times between January 1, 1997 and March 31, 1997. Not all the visits would have been chaplain rounds, however. Often she entered the block to see just one or two inmates. Much of her time was spent helping inmates deal with family deaths or other personal problems. Rounds were sometimes the least important part of her duties.

On cross-examination, Chaplain Stanley acknowledged that she did not know enough about Islam to give a talk on issues from an Islamic perspective. She also agreed that she did not know enough about Ramadan to respond to questions about dietary issues, but said she could consult colleagues in the Department of Correctional Services for help.

As noted above, Claimants allege that Defendant's failure to provide appropriate access to a Muslim Imam violated their rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Correction Law §610. However, this Court lacks jurisdiction over civil rights causes of action arising under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and must dismiss that portion of Claimants' claim (
Zagarella v State of New York, 149 AD2d 503, 504; DeLaRosa v State of New York, 173 Misc 2d 1007).
Correction Law §610 affords inmates a limited right to spiritual advice and ministration from a recognized clergy person of their faith:

The rules and regulations established for the government of the institutions mentioned in this section shall recognize the right of the inmates to the free exercise of their religious belief, and to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences,... and shall allow religious services on Sunday and for private ministration to the inmates in such manner as may best carry into effect the spirit and intent of this section and be consistent with the proper discipline and management of the institution; and the inmates of such institutions shall be allowed such religious services and spiritual advice and spiritual ministration from some recognized clergyman of the denomination or church which said inmates may respectively prefer....

(Correction Law §610[3]).
That right has been implicated here. Claimants have shown by a preponderance of the evidence that they did not receive "spiritual advice and spiritual ministration" from a Muslim Imam during the 1997 Ramadan.

They have also demonstrated that Defendant fell short of its internal directive which required weekly chaplain rounds and personal visits upon request (
see, Directive No. 4933). Mr. Towles testified credibly that there were only two chaplain rounds in Claimants' gallery between January 1 and February 10, a contention that Chaplain Stanley did not dispute. Chaplain Stanley said only that she and Chaplain Fields visited A-Block regularly, but not that they had visited Claimants' gallery or that they made weekly rounds during the relevant time. To the contrary, her testimony established that chaplain rounds were often less important than other parts of her work and that the chaplains were understaffed at the time this claim arose.
I am satisfied, based upon Chaplain Stanley's testimony, that Claimants made no written requests for chaplain visits. But I do not believe that this disposes of the matter. I conclude that the Grievance Committee should have treated the grievances that Claimants Towles and Worthy filed as requests for the chaplain visits and should have notified the chaplain of the need for the requested ministrations. Therefore, I conclude that Defendant deviated from that part of its directive that gave inmates the right to chaplain visits upon written request (
see, Directive No. 4933).
Finding that Defendant deviated from Correction Law §610 and from Directive 4933 does not, however, mean that Defendant should have to respond to Claimants in damages. To the contrary, Claimants should have pursued this matter by first exhausting their administrative remedies through the inmate grievance process (
see, Matter of Patterson v Smith, 53 NY2d 98; Matter of Shahid v Coughlin, 83 AD2d 8, 10-11, affd 56 NY2d 987; Correction Law §139; 7 NYCRR 701.1, et seq.), and then, if necessary, by commencing an Article 78 proceeding (see, e.g., Matter of Brown v McGinnis, 10 NY2d 531; Matter of Phelps v Pinkney 198 AD2d 772, appeal denied 83 NY2d 752; Matter of Cancel v Goord, 181 Misc 2d 363; CPLR 7801, et seq.). They should not be permitted to circumvent the procedural requirements and time limitations of Article 78 (cf., Frontier Insurance Co. v State of New York, 87 NY2d 864). Nor should they be rewarded in damages for neglecting administrative and judicial remedies available to them. Accordingly, this part of their claim is also dismissed.
All motions not previously ruled upon are now denied.


November 30, 2000
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

See Decision and Order Filed October 13, 1999 (Motion No. M-59881 - Claim Nos. 95807, 95839, 95894 and 96141). The October 13 order indicated that a similar claim brought by Mr. Jamel Allah would be tried with the Towles, Rowlett and Worthy claims. Mr. Allah's claim was not tried with the others because he had a parole hearing scheduled on the same day as the trial.
In a July 28, 2000 letter, SYSCO indicated that the meat was Halal and provided an August 14, 1997 letter from the initial vendor certifying that the food was Halal, under the supervision of the Halal Watch Industries and the American Islamic Halal Council and Certification Board. Because these documents were hearsay, I did not rely upon them in making my decision.
An August 7, 2000 memorandum to the Assistant Attorney General from the Inmate Grievance Program Supervisor states that there was no appeal. Because this document was hearsay, I did not consider its contents.